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Savran: Stewart is it, like it or not

Saturday, August 18, 2001

Maybe I missed it. Maybe talk show callers know something I don't. Maybe it's just wishful thinking on the part of the Steelers Chorus in Boo Flat.

But to the best of my knowledge, the only quarterback controversy surrounding the Steelers this season is who might be Kordell Stewart's backups, not who might supplant him.

Whether you believe he should be the starter or should have been anointed uncontested, or whether he'll ever become the elite quarterback the Steelers thought he might when they paid him like one are relevant but separate issues.

There is no debate as to who ought to and will be the starting quarterback this season.

Because it's this season that must answer all the questions about all the issues.

Although many, if not most, fans already have given a thumbs down to Kordell, here's why he is -- and should be -- the starter: He's coming off his best performance since the hallowed 1997 season.

Stewart showed improvement last year, even if it was marginal and left substantial questions unanswered.

He also showed some leadership skills, no small building block in constructing a quarterback.

His comeback performance against Oakland opened a lot of eyes, many of them in the Steelers' locker room, dot.com reports aside.

Even if the 2000 season represented baby steps at best, they were, at least, steps in the right direction in performance and leadership.

Now would not be the time to give up on him.

Secondly, they don't have anybody better.

Are you honestly going to entrust a season with playoff potential to a quarterback who's last meaningful game was against Florida State?

Or one who just four months ago was riddling secondaries comprised of the likes of He Hate Me?

Or one who is rapidly approaching O'Donnell-esque levels of fan vilification?

If the Steelers had been 6-10 last season and faced years of rebuilding, then a clean sweep at the position would be in order.

But even though this team has much the same look and feel as the 9-7 group of last year, they still rate as a playoff contender. And if that's your upside, this isn't the time for blindly leaping off a cliff, hoping there's water below. You've got to go with your best.

Like it or not, that's Stewart.

Of course, all bets are off after this season.

The truth is, the Steelers couldn't make a move with him before. They had too much tied up in him, financially and emotionally.

Giving up on him would have resulted in a severe blow to their salary cap from which they could not easily recover.

If Stewart again fails to progress at a sufficient rate, the Steelers would be more inclined to part company with him at the end of the season because they would have flattened out the ramifications of a bad investment.

At that point you cut your losses and look elsewhere.

I'm convinced that point will arrive at season's end.

Sooner or later, someone must come to the realization that offensive coordinators only design plays. The quarterback must execute them.

If that doesn't happen this time, it won't be the offensive coordinator who is executed.

Fans look at Stewart's tantalizing athletic skills and wonder why they alone haven't transformed him into a top-notch NFL quarterback. That's because those skills haven't been utilized in the areas where they can most benefit the offense.

People talk about foot speed and running ability. That's a nice option, but those skills aren't going to result consistently in mad dashes upfield.

Those gifts are most valuable not in gaining yardage, but in buying time. They're most effective eluding a rush to get extra seconds to complete a pass, not running for the same yardage.

Over the course of a season, your quarterback's legs aren't going to enable you to score on a consistent basis, but the threat should buy more time to hurt a defense through the air.

Watch Daunte Culpepper or Steve McNair. Their mobility isn't measured in yards gained scrambling, but by how many extra seconds they buy to complete a pass. That not only takes mobility, but presence and patience.

Stewart has the first element; whether he has one or both of the other two is in question.

He has 16 games to provide the answers.

After that, the larger debate will begin.

But for this moment, for this season, there is no debate. Stewart is the Steelers' quarterback, and he will be given this season to prove he deserves it.

Stan Savran is the host of a talk show from 8 to 9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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